People often ask me why I don’t write more love stories. I’ve tried it once or twice and people still died, which is probably down to my intensely nihilistic interpretation of love. It’s supposed to hurt, right? It’s supposed to be destructive, or else it isn’t real. Right? Anyway, when people start dying I get confused about whether it’s a love story or a horror story. This particular effort, however, is (or was) my dirty little secret. A love story where nobody gets killed. Who would’ve thunk it? I was so embarrassed by it that I refused to put my name to it for years, and how it came about is a story in itself.
I wrote the first draft back in 2011 or so when I was an English teacher in Xiangtan, China. One day, one of my students asked to see me after class. I agreed, thinking she had a test and wanted some advice or a pep talk or something. But nope, she wanted to tell me about something happening in her life which would change it forever, and made me promise to share her story when she was ‘gone.’
She was ‘gone’ barely a few weeks later, packed off against her wishes to marry a doctor in Germany who had the financial ability to give her family a good life. I never saw or heard from her again. Her story was equal parts touching, sad, and tragic, and I hope I did it justice. At least I kept my promise to her.
The student’s story makes up the core of If You’ve Ever eaten Toad, You Would Know, which is told from her perspective, but the title comes from something the girlfriend I had around the same time told me. This is another sad story, so get ready.
When she was growing up in rural China her family were very poor. She said she knew when times were especially hard, because that was when her mother made chicken soup. Not so bad, you might think. Only years later did she realize the chicken soup wasn’t made from chicken, but from toads her parents caught in the countryside around their house. Even then, most of the meat went to her elder brother, boys being traditionally more valued than girls on account of their higher earning potential.
The title became a multi-layered metaphor for enduring hardships, sacrificing your own hopes and dreams to appease others, and making the best of things. Having eaten a lot of toad myself, both metaphorically and literally, I can tell you it really does taste a bit like chicken. If you’ve ever eaten toad, you would know.
One of the editors at new online lit mag The Quiet Reader called commented the story is, “A lovely insider’s look at Chinese culture loaded with detail and nuance.”
That was nice to hear.